The Darker Side of 'Selfies'

A little while back, the Independent ran a feature on ‘the selfie’, that genre of modern self-portrait taken with a smart phone.  Hilary and Chelsea Clinton had published a selfie, which signalled the form’s crossover from youth culture to the mainstream.

When we discuss social media, the usual insight is that it allows people (whether they are public figures like Hilary Clinton or Rhianna, or just ordinary members of the public) to communicate without having to go through the established media corporations.  But I think the great significance of social media is that the traditional media outlets have completely co-opted it into their coverage.  The mainstream media’s tracking of Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Russia was powered by Twitter.  Sports reporters quote Tweets from players and managers to gain insights into their state of mind or the state of their transfer deal.

And selfies are now routinely used by the newspapers to illustrate tragic young deaths.  Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images.  The latest example of this is Hannah Smith, who committed suicide last week.  I noted a couple of years ago how they were used to report the overdose of Issy Jones-RiellyAnd the reporting on the joint-suicide of Charleigh Disbrey and Mert Karaoglan in June was heavy with ‘selfies’. Continue reading “The Darker Side of 'Selfies'”

Racial Euphemisms at the Telegraph

Here’s a euphemism laden sentence from a Daily Telegraph editorial:

[The research] shows a continuing pattern of “white flight” from areas where indigenous Britons find themselves surrounded by new minority communities.

Where they say ‘indigenous’ they mean ‘white’, and when they say ‘minority communities’ they mean not-white (Aisha Phoenix called this out in The LIP Magazine, a decaded ago).  The posh language dresses a racial issue as a cultural one.

And the research in question is questionable.  I found the Telegraph editorial via a blog post by Jonanthan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.  Portes was taking on the grand claims for “white flight” by David Goodhart in his book The British Dream.  If people in the ‘White British’ group are leaving London, they are doing so in relatively small numbers.

Is publishing the true cultural engine of our time?

The release today of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamed’s brilliant novel, reminded me to post this article I wrote for InPrint, the magazine of the Society of Young Publishers.  It was published last month, in the issue timed to co-incide with the London Book Fair.


Who drives our culture? Conventional wisdom says it is Hollywood. After all, it is the film industry that produces the most highly paid artistes and the most visible ‘A listers’. Film is a visual medium and it churns out icons at a steady, lucrative rate. The four-hour Oscars telecast is beamed live around the world.

By contrast, the announcement of the Man Booker Prize does not even get its own TV slot in schedules. The announcement is allowed to interrupt the news broadcasts, but the analysis and reactions are made to wait until a scheduled bulletin and it’s never the lead story.

Film claims global relevance, whereas publishing is parochial. Film claims to be popular, whereas publishing is elitist. Continue reading “Is publishing the true cultural engine of our time?”

James Bond is just a code name

Although I support the message behind this James Bond Supports International Women’s Day video, I’m not really a fan of the video itself.  I don’t really see how having Daniel Craig as James Bond just stand there for a bit, and then return in drag, adequately conveys the inequality between the way men and women are treated in society.  Surely having a woman (say, Naomie Harris) perform Bond’s lines, while Daniel Craig delivers the Miss Moneypenny lines, would better convey how men and women are treated differently in all walks of life?

Could there ever be a female James Bond?  This may seem like a silly question:  That James Bond is a man (a womanising man, no less) seems to be a ‘defining feature’. Continue reading “James Bond is just a code name”

A Thousand Smart Phones Glowing in the Square

Take a look at this image.

Smart Phones in St Peter's Square
Smart Phones in St Peter’s Square

It is St Peter’s Square, Rome, on a Wednesday evening in March, as Pope Francis was introduced to the Faithful.  I think perfectly captures our time and obsessions and it should be the definitive image of this particular event.

I continue to be obsessed with this sort of thing: A mass of people all taking a photograph, simultaneously, of the same historical moment. It seems people (myself included) have an obsession with recording their own version of a shared moment… Even if their version of the sight (in this case, a pope) is grainy, tiny, and out of focus… And even if we can guarantee without a shadow of doubt that a better, professionally captured image, will be available.

People would rather watch the special moment through their viewfinder, than with their own eyes.

(I said I included myself among those who indulge in this weird practice, and I meant it. My closest even encounter with the Queen, at an opening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, was experienced entirely through the view-finder of a Super-8mm cine camera).

I think the image above (which, ironically, I had to re-photograph from the Metro free newspaper because I could not find it online) has extra resonance, however. The glowing screens look a little like candles. In years past, I’m sure the Catholic faithful would have indeed held vigil by candle-light as they waited for the ‘Habemus Papum’ announcement. So the constellation of smart-phones here provides a sort of visual pun, the twenty-first century intruding on a centuries-old ritual.

Why video games will never be 'culture'

Listening to the Overthinkers over-think video game culture (last week) and films (this week), I have begun to worry that video games will never be ‘culture’. More generously, I am concerned that video games will never attain the same cultural currency as other art forms.

This is because people do not absorb the culturally significant video games of the past, as they do with significant literature, film, and music. Continue reading “Why video games will never be 'culture'”

Is alcohol a placebo?

Alcohol makes people do very strange things, doesn’t it?  From ‘On Being The Sober Guy At The Party’ from The Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Atrobus:

I’ve seen people at parties strip
deep into the naked night.
I know their names,
I’ve seen them crawl on the floor
WOOF WOOF! I’M A DOG!

And yet, perhaps alcohol affects people from different cultures in different ways.  Here’s ‘Satoru’, one of the narrators in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten:

I’ve seen foreigners get drunk in bars out in Sibuya and place, and they turn into animals. Japanese people never do that. The men might get friskier, but never violent.  Alcohol just lets off steam for Japanese. For foreigners, alcohole just seems to build steam up. And they kiss in public, too! I’ve seen them stick their tongues in a grope the girl’s breasts. In bars, where everyone can see!

These passages remind me of this article by Kate Fox of the Social Issues Research Centre, which suggest that the effect of alcohol is more in the excuse it gives us to break social barriers and revert to base behaviours.

In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, “Oi, what you lookin’ at?” and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, “Hey babe, fancy a shag?” and start groping each other.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.

So perhaps alcohol is actually a sort of placebo.  We think it causes us to become gregarious, rude, aggressive or transgressive.  And so we become those things.

(Photo from CollegeHumour.com)

Two Great Pieces of Collaborative Internet Art

Ever since my intimate involvement with Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden, Internet-only art has been one of my recurring interests. Most recently, I noted the delightful xkcd cartoon that only really works properly online, using features available in computers. Art that is not simply a recording of a performance that took place in some place and time. Art that is not simply a scan or representation of something that exists on a wall or street corner somewhere. Art that you cannot experience anywhere but on a connected device. Art that could not have been created before the twenty-first century.

Here are two more examples, both extremely simple, both aesthetically pleasing on the surface, and both with an added beauty because of the collaboration that is inherent in their creation.

Continue reading “Two Great Pieces of Collaborative Internet Art”

Two Great Folk Songs on the Danger of Guns

Thinking about the ‘Bollocks To Nick Griffin‘ video I posted set me reminiscing about the Imagined VillageEmpire and Love‘ concert I attended in 2010.  Chris Wood is part of the collective, and before the main event he performed an acoustic set.  Among the songs was an amazing, chilling song about the killing of Jean Charles De Menezes. I did not realise until now that the track is called ‘Hollow Point’ and actually won best song at the 2011 Folk Awards.

I still remember the chill I felt when I first heard Chris sing the words “He never heard the footsteps behind him / by the bus stop at Tulse Hill”.  In that moment, what was an abstract story of an everyman trying to make his way in the world becomes a frighteningly specific narration of the final moments of one particular person.  The accompaniment is a simple acoustic guitar, but the lyrics build to an inevitable crescendo, just as the CCTV footage we have seen of De Menezes on that day builds to the inevitable, appalling, unseen dénouement down in the carriage. Continue reading “Two Great Folk Songs on the Danger of Guns”